Yuppie Cusack Can’t Find Life on Kiddie Mars

In the movie biz, everything comes in twos. Last week’s
delusion was a man in love with a sex doll, in “Lars and the Real Girl” — a
film that glided through awkward moments and tragic humor with the unimpeded
grace of a ghost through walls.

But this week, we get “Martian Child,” a miserably sappy
melodrama as pointed as a vampire without a dental plan. It’s essentially
“K-Pax” meets “Powder,” minus Kevin Spacey’s talent and the original premise of
the latter: In “Martian,” science-fiction writer David Gordon (John Cusack)
decides to recover from his wife’s death by adopting a child convinced he’s on
a mission from Mars.

Dennis (Bobby Coleman), the oddball orphan, is horribly pale
— he spends most of his time in a refrigerator box — and wears a weighted scuba
belt to keep from floating off our low-gravity planet. David begins well
enough, embracing this love-starved child who copes with others about as well
as a snail with table salt. At first, the surrogate father is captivated by
what everyone mistakes as quirky individuality, only to stumble soon after as
it becomes painfully clear how emotionally disturbed Dennis really is.

Perhaps in the spirit of halloween, this monstrously
abnormal child was intended to frighten rather than endear — but that’s
doubtfully the case. Where Kevin Spacey’s Prot was harmlessly charming and
lovable, little Dennis is downright disturbing. He steals, he lies, he hangs
upside down — and there’s an unending anticipation that, at any minute, his
head will begin to spin out of its socket.

But David’s head is already spinning as he tries to overcome
crippling grief while dealing with the introduction of an adopted child, and
all during a scramble to meet his latest book’s deadline. But these conflicts
are merely cursory, further beached by a limited cast of rangeless characters
that do little else to engage the audience than work themselves into an
emotional mess.

Playing the devil’s advocate to David’s starry-eyed idealism
is his sister Liz, played by Cusack’s real-life sister Joan — because, as we
know, where one goes, the other never fails to follow. Whether out of fierce
dedication to method acting or simply spineless casting, the siblings deliver
their patented squeaky hysterics while Harlee (Amanda Peet) fills the generic
role of best-friend/pseudo-love-interest who complicates everything. David and
Harlee’s moments of accidental intimacy are overwrought and easily overlooked,
while their mutual compassion and unflinching understanding for Dennis comes
too easily to believe.

While the trio struggles to acculturate Dennis to the real
world, menacing adoption-agency rep Mr. Lefkowitz (played by the grossly
talented Richard Schiff of TV’s “The West Wing”) threatens to take Dennis back
for almost no discernible reason — other than, of course, the script’s
submission to orphan-story archetypes. Were it not for such uninspired scenes
and dialogue, this talented cast and unusual plot could have made for a
heartwarming, even enjoyable, story; instead, the movie faceplants on a
Hollywood slab of banality, with the usual tugging of frayed heartstrings and
the endless torture of bloodied clichés, with the only exceptional performances
coming from Schiff and the dopey he-Cusack.

Like toddlers swinging waffle bats, director Menno Meyjes
and his screenwriting team attempt to attach legitimacy to this unlikely
(though unabashedly stolen) tale with brutally obvious symbolism. From the
undisguised metaphor of Dennis’ sunlight sensitivity to his social anxiety, and
his fear of floating away to fear of abandonment, the film is an endless parade
of crudely disguised childhood alienation commentary. The film’s creators show
not even a hint of serious interest in mental disorders — a topic much
deserving of attention — instead keeping the focus as family-safe as possible
by endlessly entertaining the notion that the kid might actually be from Mars.
Cutesy demonstrations like switching on a street light with pure force of will
and guessing an M&M’s flavor while blindfolded — to prove Dennis can taste
colors (except blue, of course) — drive us to the edge. We’re much more ready to strangle the creepy
little albino than see his dilemma to its reassuring end.

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